Kazakhstan Country Profile

By Mr. Michele Cavadini, Analyst at IB Consultancy

The Republic of Kazakhstan, the most prominent and richest country among the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, is undergoing numerous changes in the organization of its military capabilities. The main goal of the Kazakhstan army is to develop and modernize its forces and numerous initiatives have been implemented in an attempt to reach western countries' standards. In 2020, The Ministry of Defense, following the advice received by Kazakh researchers and academics, decided to prioritize and invest in the digitalization of the army, information systems, telecommunication networks, and data processing centers. Program-target funding is being issued to universities to carry out scientific research in robotics and electronic warfare. Attention has also been put into the development of air defense capabilities. In 2020 BUK anti-aircraft system was set in place and activated, Su-30SM aircraft, Mi-35 helicopters, and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles were purchased.

Terrorism, Counter Improvised Explosive Devices (C-IED) and Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD)

Kazakhstan is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and has co-organized the 10th and 11th annual workshops in 2018 and 2019, respectively focusing on explosives and C-IEDs.

Since the 2011 bomb attack in Aktyoubinsk, where a suicide bomber affiliated to Jund al-Khilafah blew himself up in front of the Committee of the National Security building, stricter measures to counter radicalization and religious extremism have been put into place. Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of Caliphate) is a radical Islamic group related to Al-Qaida, and ever since 2011, the Islamic group has been responsible for the majority of the terrorist attacks in the country. Therefore, Islamic radicalization is also considered to be a significant threat to national security. According to the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan, since the beginning of the war in Iraq and Syria, about 800 nationals allegedly moved to these countries to join terrorist organizations. To fight radicalization, in 2017 the Government implemented a five-year Program (2017-2022) against "religious extremism and terrorism." Law enforcement authorities also continue with their efforts to repatriate Kazakhstan Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) and family members from Syria and prosecute those suspected of participation in terrorist activity abroad.

In 1997 Kazakhstan established a moratorium of unlimited duration on the export and transit of landmines. The landmines stockpile remains unknown, as the country has not taken part in the Mine ban Treaty and retains the information for national security reasons. However, according to the Government, most mines have expired or been destroyed, and a plan is in place for their gradual dismantlement. Additionally, the presence of minefields in the country is unknown, as over the past years the Government has been both acknowledging and denying the use of landmines in the country’s border areas.

Military spending and procurement

In 2021, the Republic of Kazakhstan's overall defense budget amounts to 1409 trillion Tenge (3,3 billion dollars), for a total of 10.7% of the country's GDP.

The Ministry of Defense is looking for alternative sources of funding, working on a mechanism for public-private partnership, and seeking savings by optimizing the structure of the Armed Forces. At the initiative of the Ministry of Defense, amendments were made to the rules for the implementation of public procurement, introducing a special procedure for foreign companies to access Kazakhstan's market and public tenders. The current procurement regulation provides very complicated rules for foreign companies to access the Kazakh defense market.

CBRN Troops and Capabilities

In 2020 the Minister of Defense Nurlan Yermekbayev underlined the need to implement the Program for the Development of the NBC Defense Troops. The Program sets up objectives to reach the creation and development of troops specialized in hazardous situations. The Covid-19 crises speeded up the implementation of the Program. In June 2020, the Department of Radiation, Chemical, Biological Protection, and Environmental Safety was created by the Armed Forces' General Staff (Ministry of Defense). Prior to this reform, the organization of NBC troops in the Armed Forces was entrusted to a structural subdivision of the Department of Engineering Troops, General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

The latest NBC units have been tasked with quickly finalizing the development of the NBC system for protecting the Armed Forces. Modern threats, capabilities of the troops, and the development trends of the defense-industrial complex of the world's leading countries have been taken into account. In the future, efforts will be aimed at further developing the NBC protection system and maintaining the readiness of forces and means for a timely response to emerging threats.

Uranium and nuclear energy

The country is rich in Uranium and is the first world producer, covering 43% of the world's natural uranium supply in 2019. In 2008, Kazakhstan and Canada (with Cameco, the world's largest publicly traded uranium company) established a joint venture to construct a uranium conversion facility at the Ulba Metallurgy Plant in Oskemen, eastern Kazakhstan. Kazatomprom, the state-owned corporation in control of the country's nuclear industry, is the number one actor present in Central Asia regarding nuclear matters. Of its 17 mine projects in Kazakhstan, five are wholly owned by Kazatomprom, and 12 are joint ventures with foreign equity holders.

Kazakhstan cooperates with Russia and China on several nuclear projects. For example, Russia and Kazakhstan cooperated on uranium exploration, mining, enrichment activities and jointly established the International Uranium Center in Angarsk in 2007.

“ (...) several radioactive waste sites remain in the country, including a storage facility for high-activity waste at the former Semipalatinsk Test Site.”

Furthermore, Kazatomprom and China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC) agreed to a joint venture project to create Kazakhstan's first nuclear fuel fabrication plant in May 2016. Today Kazakhstan has four nuclear reactors utilized for research purposes. The National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan is responsible for the country's research reactors, for three reactors at the former Semipalatinsk Test Site and one in Alatau, just outside the city of Almaty. The last power reactor BN-350 in Aktau, was shut down in April 1999.

Due to past nuclear activities, several radioactive waste sites remain in the country, including a storage facility for high-activity waste at the former Semipalatinsk Test Site (over 10,000 kg of high enriched uranium (HEU)and 3,000 kg of plutonium leftovers).

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Kazakhstan inherited 1,410 nuclear warheads deployed on RS-20 missiles (SS-18 'Satan') and Tu-95 (Bear) heavy bombers. Due to the ratification by the Kazakhstani Parliament of the START I Treaty on 2 July 1992 and the accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on 14 February 1994, in April 1995, all its nuclear warheads were transferred to the Russian Federation.

Chemical and Biological Challenges

In 2000 Kazakhstan ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and stopped the production of chemical war agents. However, during the Soviet era, Kazakhstan housed a dual-purpose chemical complex in Pavlodar, until the Program was halted in 1987 by President Gorbachev. Due to the facility's past activities, there are significant mercury pollution problems in Pavlodar, caused by a mercury catalyst used for chlorine and sodium production to this date. Some estimates show that the plant released up to 1,310 tons of metallic mercury into the environment, contaminating the groundwater and generating potential human health risks.

Kazakhstan never pursued a biological warfare program and ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 2007. However, during the Soviet Era, its territory was extensively used to research, produce, and test biological warfare agents. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the four production facilities on its territory were dismissed or converted.

In 1993 the National Centre of Biotechnology (NCB) was created, tasked with the dismantling and destroying of Biological War agents. The task of converting weapons-related expertise to peaceful production required considerable effort. In 2005 the NCB was reorganized into the state enterprise "National Center for Biotechnology of the Republic of Kazakhstan" and placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and Science. At present, the NCB is the leading research institute in the field of biotechnology, biosafety, and ecology of the country.

Although Kazakhstan is trying to stay ahead of any CBRNe incidents while trying to update its capabilities up to modern international standards, its past has left significant scars in terms of CBRNe accidents. Radiation deriving from nuclear experiments and chemical pollution still remain, demonstrating the importance of timely prevention and the risks posed by CBRNe threats.

Michele Cavadini is a master’s degree student from Trento University, Italy, majoring in International Relations. After a period spent at the Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg, Russia, he specialized in European-Russian relations. He joined the IBC team in November 2020.